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Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): I rise to support amendment (a) to amendment No. 11, tabled in my name and supported by numerous colleagues. I also wish to make a number of direct points about amendment No. 11, tabled in the Minister's name.
I hope that amendment (a) will win widespread support; it deserves to. Its origins lie not with me, but with the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), the promoter of the Bill. I pay full and warm tribute to the hon. Gentleman for all he has done to bring the Bill through the House, but I cannot agree with his sad conclusions about this crucial clause.
There has been a very large degree of cross-party consensus on this Bill. Its aims have found vocal support right across the Chamber; indeed, among its earliest supporters was the Minister. But if the Government will not accept my amendment, all the hard work that has gone into the Bill, and all the hopes and aspirations invested in it, will have been totally and utterly wasted.
If passed, amendment No. 11 will gut this Bill. It will allow the Secretary of State to set targets for local authorities entirely at his or her discretion. It does not require him or her to set any specific target; we are all left just hoping the Minister will set one. Amendment No. 11 allows the Minister to set any target or none. There is no mandatory benchmark or statutory commitment.
The Government amendment dilutes this Bill into wishy-washy good intentions, totally reliant on ministerial discretion. Amendment (a) by contrast, would set a statutory requirement for the Secretary of State to set meaningful targets. He would still have the freedom to set different targets for different authorities, but the amendment would require him to have a "principal aim " of a 30 per cent. improvement between 1996 and 2010; exactly what the Government guidance already calls for.
The drafting of amendment (a) also allows the Secretary of State to increase the scale of central programmes, perhaps under the warm homes strategy, and reflect that in the targets that he sets, over which, under amendment (a), he would still have huge flexibility and discretion. Without amendment (a), I would have grave doubts over whether amendment No. 11 will in any way improve local authorities' performance under the 1995 Act.
The Minister's amendment effectively rewrites part 1, and does so in such a way that if the Secretary of State does nothing at all, he or she will not be in breach of the legislation. That is the Government's wrecking amendment in a nutshell: the Minister may do nothingabsolutely nothing at alland still not be in breach of the Bill. Is that truly what Members on both sides of the House have worked so hard for?
I know that the Minister will want to assure us that he will not take that route, that he intends to act and that arch sceptics who doubt him are simply being unfair. I fully accept that he is personally committed to environmental protection, including energy efficiency, yet when the House passes a law, we should not, in my view, leave so much discretion to the Executive, whatever their political complexion. A law that says, "You can do this or not do itit's entirely up to you," is not much of a law. In fact, its passage through the House would be a complete waste of time.
Mr. Challen: As a fellow member of the Environmental Audit Committee, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares my healthy scepticism about the meaning of targets. Our meeting on Wednesday went into that point in great depth. If he is asking the House to agree to his amendment, he should give some idea of its financial cost. It would also help me, as one who is genuinely torn on the subject, to hear his assessment of how much progress has been made in the seven years since the 1995 Act was passed.
Of course, the House needs to be certain that the principal aim of a 30 per cent. improvement is realistic and achievable. It is, but let me remind the House of several points. First, the 30 per cent. target that I recommend has been in Government guidance since the HECA was passed and implemented. Although local authorities have set slightly varying targets, 30 per cent. is the average in their strategies. Plainly, central Government think the target achievable, or they would not have guided councils to meet it. Equally plainly, the vast majority of local authorities have plans to meet the targetit must be achievable.
Furthermore, the recent performance and innovation unit report, which the Minister referred to, calls for a 20 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency by 2010 from current levels. While at first glance that appears to be a smaller target, the PIU is calling for it to be achieved in just eight years, as it expects an improvement from current levels. The 30 per cent. target required by amendment (a) and in HECA guidance is based on a 1996 baseline, giving 14 years for it to be reached. With some progress already made, effectively the two targets are identical.
There are controversial points in the PIU report, but the energy efficiency targets have not been regarded as controversial. The Environmental Audit Committee thought those targets pretty tame. By supporting amendment (a) the Government would show that they were taking the energy report seriously; opposing ambitious statutory targets would suggest that the report was a waste of time.
Since 14 April, 211 hon. Members have signed early-day motion 1136, which was tabled by the promoter of the Bill. Indeed, 146 Labour MPs have signed up to a motion that welcomes the 30 per cent. target and calls for the Bill to
Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I begin with praise and some thank-yous. Despite all the areas that we need to address and which may be contentious, we ought to recognise how much has gone into bringing before the House a Bill that it is important to pass. In recognising how we have reached this point, we must pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), who has sweated blood to get the legislation here in any form. The whole House owes him great praise and credit for that.
I also put on record my praise for the Minister. All the way through, he has been a stalwart campaigner on our objectives of eradicating fuel poverty and addressing the climate change targets which the Government have already set for themselves. It would be wrong to dress this up in any way as an act of last-minute betrayal by, I think, probably the best Environment Minister that the House has ever had.
While I am singing praises, it would be remiss not to recognise the contributions made by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, during proceedings in Committee and work done in the all-party warm homes group, which I have the genuine privilege to chair, towards building a huge cross-party consensus on supporting our shared objective of ending fuel poverty in Britain. It has not been an issue where we have fallen out on party lines.
The question that we have sought to deal with over the 10 years that I have been in Parliament, moving it on year by year, stage by stage, has been whether we can set the objective of eradicating fuel poverty and, now that we have, trying to be clear about the mechanisms for doing so.
Every part of the political process in the House has played a constructive part, as have many organisations outside, which have given us amazing backing. The Local Government Association, the National Federation of Housing Associations, environmental groups, poverty groups and responsible landlords have, in bringing this Bill back before the House, played constructive parts. With or without the shortcomings of amendment No. 11, it is important to recognise that there are massive gains in passing a Bill that specifically refers to fuel poverty and that does something specific about what is arguably the hardest sector of housing for fuel poverty: houses in multiple occupation. I do not intend to speak on those proposals, but I wanted to say how important they are as benchmarks of achievement.
The central issue is about targets and time scale. Last night my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown thanked Members who had helped him to bring the Bill this far. I am sure that he will not mind me telling the House that he thanked them for the individual parts that they had played in giving him what he described
Whether they are dealt with in the Bill or not, the issues surrounding targets and time scale will be the ones that dog us in the debate about the elimination of fuel poverty. They will dog us in every constituency, in every debate and in every Government policy. Unless and until we deal with them, we will not be perceived as credibly committed to delivering what we say we are committed to on paper and within our legal framework.
The original intention of the Bill was to try to fill a gap. At one stage, when my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown was looking at the gaps that the Bill was trying to fill, he told us that we were currently committed to the eradication of fuel poverty in Britain within 15 years. Thanks to the case that Friends of the Earth brought before the High Court, we now know that that is the eradication of all fuel povertynot some, a lot or the majority, but all. We have a legal duty to deliver on that target.
We also know the Government have made commitments on climate change obligations and the Kyoto targets, and that part of the legacy of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 was the ministerial guidance notes that said clearly that we were committed to 30 per cent. improvements in energy efficiency by 2010. Those guidance notes remain in place and continue to be the ones that local authorities across the land attempt to work to. The Minister is right that many of those local authorities have not only taken those guidelines seriously, but attempted to deliver on them. We should not malign local authorities by saying that they treat the guidance as disposable. Many of the best local authorities have given a lead that the House should pay tribute to and feel proud of.